Roots and Branches: A Conversation with Joel Troge about New York Public School’s new Roots and Branches 3rd and 4th Grade unit.

Joel Troge, Director of Long Term ELL’s, Newcomers, and SIFE at New York Public School’s Department of Multilingual Learners, spoke with Re-Imagining Migration’s Program Director, Meisha Lamb-Bell, about a new unit he developed for 3rd and 4th graders in the New York Public Schools. The unit, Moving Stories: Roots and Branches, is the second unit drawn from Re-Imagining Migration’s resources that Joel’s team has developed. Joel describes the unit and how it can be adapted for use outside of New York. If you do decide to use the unit, please be in touch with Joel at jtroge@schools.nyc.gov and complete this survey   

Inspiration and Goals

Meisha Lamb-Bell: What inspired you to create this unit?

Joel Troge: While NYC has long been an entry point for immigrants and a destination for new arrivals, the arrival of asylum seekers coming to NYC since May of 2022 has been unique in terms of the number of students entering our school system in the elementary grades.  Because of that, I wanted to create a unit adapting the Re-Imagining Migration guide for teaching Moving Stories for the elementary grades–but not just for the new arrivals–this unit is for all students because everyone has a moving story, and we all have a role to play in welcoming our new classmates, students and neighbors.  I hope that this unit for grades 3/4 provides the structure for elementary teachers and students to facilitate conversations around migration and the assets that new arrivals bring to our communities.

MLB: What was your goal in developing this curriculum?  

JT: The goal of each Moving Stories unit in this series is to recalibrate people’s conception of migration from something that happens to others–or conversely, just to oneself–to the idea that migration is a shared human experience.  As a result, each unit is designed to help students make personal connections to stories of migration and the cultural heritage and history that each story possesses.  

Carola Suárez-Orozco’s Moving Stories Interview Questions are the cornerstone of the “Roots and Branches” unit and they provide inspiration for the interview activity that helps students explore their family’s migration story.  But the power of the Moving Stories questions make this more than just a family research project–sharing stories of migration helps students to develop their own self-awareness, empathy and advocacy skills, take ownership of their narratives, create and build inclusive practices in the classroom, and make them feel more visible to their peers, their school and their communities.

Centering Belonging and the Student Experience

MLB: What do you want other educators to know about centering belonging in curriculum development?

JT: In my opinion, belonging must be at the core of any responsive and sustaining curriculum.  Without belonging, students–especially those that have been historically marginalized in education–can have a difficult time finding entry points into the content and meeting the standards that we want them to achieve.  

Admittedly, centering belonging might be easier to do in humanities-based courses than STEM-based courses, and so each Moving Stories unit in this series offers ways that the unit could be adapted or–better yet–co-taught across disciplines to deepen students’ understanding of the Driving Question.  For example, in the revision of the grades 9/10 unit that I am currently working on, one of the throughlines is how climate change plays a dynamic factor in migration, and so while the unit might be primarily taught in an English language arts or social studies classroom, a science teacher on that grade-level team may want to teach lessons on climate change’s impact on the particular regions of the world applicable to their students’ backgrounds.  

MLB: How did you center the student experience in your unit?

JT: The unit is rooted in the interview activity, which is centered on the student’s family and/or ancestral migration story (crucial for younger students).  All interview questions are optional so that families can answer only what they feel comfortable responding to or have knowledge of, and those responses become the material for part of the students’ culminating project in the unit.   

The “My Roots and Branches” project contains three parts connected to students’ lives: their present, their past (based on their family’s migration story), and their future.  As such, the project becomes not just a way for students to share what they learned in their research, but also their hopes and aspirations for themselves and their communities.  

Additionally, most of the activities in the unit are designed to be collaborative, which not only helps to scaffold students into success, but also provides authentic opportunities for students to learn by listening and building conversations with their peers.

An Adaptable Unit for Elementary-Aged Students

MLB: What about your unit excites you most?

JT: It might be a tie between the texts (Islandborn by Junot Díaz is just a wonderful book in general) and the discussion activities in the unit.  One of my instructional objectives was to ensure that this unit met elementary teachers’ needs to develop their students’ literacy and language skills, and so you’ll see Teacher’s Guides included for unit activities to help embed that objective into the content of every lesson.

MLB: What do you want education communities to know about migrant student education?

JT: It’s an opportunity to teach global issues in a very real and meaningful way–migrant students and their families bring their lived experiences, their languages and their skills to our communities.  If we don’t find ways to include those students in our instruction we are not capitalizing on the assets that are present in our schools and communities.

MLB: You had previously developed a high school unit with Moving Stories. How was developing a unit for grades 3/4 unique?

JT: First, I owe a tremendous amount of thanks and appreciation to the collaborators–four NYC Public School elementary teachers–who helped to develop this unit.  Their perspectives and experience were invaluable to making this unit what it became.  

In terms of what made this unit for grades 3/4 unique in comparison to the unit for grades 9/10, the biggest difference was to anticipate what younger children might remember–or not–from their migration experiences.  One thing that the collaborating teachers reminded me of in the development process was that students in these grades may not be able to recall their migration journeys even if they had happened quite recently.  That’s what led us in the direction of having the family interview be the primary connection to their migration story, instead of relying on their personal experiences, which might be a more typical approach taken with older adolescents.

An Invitation

MLB: How can educators modify your curriculum for their community?

JT: There are really only a few items in the “Roots and Branches” unit that are specific to the New York context (e.g., the Core Curriculum Connections, the links to Sora–an online library for NYC Public Schools) and the New York State ELA standards, which can be easily crosswalked with other state standards.  Everything else in the unit is intentionally designed to be able to be modified by teachers to best fit their students and their local context.  One instructional example of this is the “YOUR CHOICE” moments highlighted in the lesson plans, which provide suggestions for how teachers can adapt that part of the unit.  And on the technical side, all student-facing documents are linked as forced copies in the unit guide so that teachers can edit the resources to meet the needs of their students and their community.    

MLB: What are your future plans for this curriculum?

JT: I am almost finished with the revision of the unit for grades 9/10 (“The Words We Use”) which we piloted with schools in the 2022/23 school year.  Once that is finished, I plan to get started on a unit for the upper high school grades (“The Path Forward”), which will hopefully be ready to share by the late spring of 2024.  And, as of now, the plan is to begin work on two additional units for grades 5/6 and grades 7/8 over the summer.

If you do use these units with students, I would love your feedback–please reach out to jtroge@schools.nyc.gov or complete this survey when you get the chance.